Donald Trump is the best thing to happen to impressionists since at least George W. Bush, if not since Nixon himself. In addition to talking like a Jerky Boys character, his word choice is so consistently weird as to offer anyone who mimics him a readymade vocabulary: tremendous, (h)uge, great, believe me, trust me, you’ll see, I do not have a personality disorder, I’ll sue you for defamation, et cetera. Maybe none of the entries in this lexicon is as strange as “bigly,” a word Trump says—or people think he says—a lot. According to the New York Times and linguist Dr. Susan Lin, however, he’s actually saying “big league.” I thought we all agreed on that.
Three factors seem to contribute to the broad perception that Trump is saying “bigly,” a word Merriam-Webster considers proper but the Oxford American does not. The first two are technical. One, he generally talks like he is trying to swallow a wet sock, making the glottal stop at the end of “league” difficult to hear. Two, “big league” or, more properly, “big-league” is typically an adjective, but Trump tends to use it at the end of sentences, where adverbs normally appear. Here he is after his Indiana primary win in May:
We’ve been losing all the time. We lose with everything. We lose with our military; we cant beat ISIS. We lose with trade. We lose with borders. We lose with everything. We’re not going to lose. We’re going to start winning again and we’re going to win big league.
There’s that uplifting Trump message voters love. This paragraph makes plenty of sense if you substitute “big time,” which is more commonly used as an adverb. “That dog walker is a big-league weed smoker,” but “that dog walker is addicted to weed, big time.” In this case, Trump’s last-minute syntax and nonstandard enunciation conspire to make him sound goofy.
But there is a third reason he seems to be saying “bigly,” and it’s that we want him to talk dumb. We’ve watched powerful Republicans mangle spoken English in funny ways for the last four presidential elections. The last one gave us Michele Bachmann, a voluble nut. In 2008, Sarah Palin routinely sprayed sketch-comedy grade nonsense whenever she opened her mouthhole. Before her, the aforementioned W Bush established the premise of powerful Republicans who can’t talk properly. Americans have been living in a fertile field of malapropisms for 15 years now, and so we have become like children, constantly on alert for when an adult misspeaks.
Trump doesn’t say “bigly,” but our idea of Trump does. This bias is tantamount to rigging the election, and we should just award him the presidency no matter who gets more votes on November 10. Okay, maybe not. But seen from the inside—from the perspective of a man who says “big league” and then gets mocked for using an expression even kids know not to say—it probably looks like another way the deck is stacked against him.
This point of view is absurd, of course, coming from Trump. His father was a millionaire real-estate developer who sent him to various private schools, loaned him a million dollars and then let him use family connections to become a billionaire real estate developer in one of the most favorable markets in American history. Horatio Alger it ain’t. But Trump sees politics as a snobbish club that unjustly excludes him, the outsider. Stuff like this “bigly” thing is proof that a kid from Queens isn’t welcome.
Let us not feel too much sympathy for him. He is a rich, racist, lying, misogynist boor, and he seems to be doing everything he can to make civil society worse. But even a villain can be treated unfairly. This bigly/big-league mishearing is a testament to how powerfully our ideas can shape our perception of reality. If this were the worst thing we thought about Trump, we’d all feel a lot better. But it’s this kind of thing that allows him to feel, perhaps justly, a little sorry for himself as the election looms. A guy like him never had a chance.